From the Sep./Oct. 1999 issue of Film Comment. I was going to run this in late August or early September, and it’s now Sep. 18. Alors.
Do the French make jokes about “French movies?” Roll their eyes at yet another film about young people chatting their way through a procession of cafés and love affairs? I hope not, because there are those of us who pray the “French movie” will never wane, that the garrulous spirit of Masculin-Feminin and The Mother and the Whore will always inform a certain percentage of Gallic exports.
Olivier Assayas’ Late August, Early September is one of those French movies, yet it stakes out its own distinct territory—or texture, to be more precise. As the title gently suggests (and almost everything in this movie is gently suggested), the subject of the film is the moment in life when youth has suddenly, inexplicably shifted into something like the first reluctant steps of middle age, a good-paying job no longer seems like such a sell-out, and mortality is the guest at the party who won’t leave at a decent hour. Although the center of the movie is 30-ish Gabriel (Mathieu Amalric), most of the events are triggered by the illness of his friend, a 40-year-old writer named Adrien (François Cluzet, looking more like Dustin Hoffman as he gets older). Adrien, a self-absorbed novelist whose books have found only narrow acceptance, is now dying of an unnamed malady.
Adrien is tended by many of the film’s characters, and he also carries on a secret affair with a 15-year-old girl named Vera (Mia Hansen-Love). The older writer has a curious relationship with Gabriel, as a hands-off mentor and a confidant who doesn’t confide very much. We don’t see anything of Adrien before he is ill, but Cluzet’s marvelous performance suggests the thaw of a distracted intellectual confronted with death—not as a sentimental story arc, but in his own quirky, still remote way.
Gabriel’s love life is mixed up with a younger girlfriend, Anne (Virginie Ledoyen), and an ex, Jenny (Jeanne Balibar), with whom he still sometimes falls into a snuggle. He’s in the midst of what might be described as a kind of passionate float. Mathieu Amalric, an actor who performed similar duties in Arnaud Desplechin’s How I Got Into an Argument… (My Sex Life)–a gloriously “French movie” if ever there was one–conveys the perfect sense of this; not quite handsome or forceful enough to be the star of his own life, he has a humorous passivity that we can believe attracts the beautiful women of those films, and his monkey eyes are alert, quick, eyes that register everything around him. (You want to call him an Antoine Doinel for the Nineties, but there is something unfinished and feral about him that also invokes Truffaut’s Wild Child.)
Gabriel keeps seeing Jenny because they once bought an apartment together and are now trying to sell it; she misses him, he likes kissing her, things almost happen. Assayas has a wonderfully wise feel for the way practical matters, even mundane things, have a way of shaping and defining our lives—were it not for the issues of peddling their flat and signing contracts, they would not see each other so often, and Gabriel might be moving forward in his relationship with the mercurial Anne. Late in the film, Gabriel and Jenny are leaving a funeral, and it is settled that Gabriel will give Jenny a ride to her place. It’s a funeral, and both are emotional, and for a moment we watch them walk along, their eyes darting nervously. We foresee the reunion that is about to happen, a road about to be taken…but then a couple of other characters come along, offering rides, and Gabriel and Jenny go their separate ways. The logic of saving time and saving gas averts a potential life event.
That sequence is realized in a single, loose shot, and throughout the film Assayas covers the action in plain, often handheld, simplicity. (The same purified, clean feel Eric Rohmer has in An Autumn Tale, and Assayas is only 43 years old.) The approach never strains for its naturalism, however, and what we see feels as crafted and selected as, say, an Ozu movie, although Assayas’ restless camera could not be farther from Ozu’s stationary gaze. That title does sound Ozu-esque, come to think of it.
Like the thoughtful progress of Gabriel, the film’s style might be described as a passionate float, as each scene evolves only to disappear in a soft, swift fade to black. It’s as though the movie is embarrassed about nudging up to melodrama, and thus withdraws discreetly. This is never more apparent, or more effective, than when we learn the fate of a Joseph Beuys sketch that has great meaning to Adrien. Assayas lets us glimpse the destiny of the sketch for just an eye-blink before fading out. In the context of the plot, this is the heart-stopping moment, but Assayas comes close to tossing it off—which makes it all the sweeter.
Assayas might well object to Late August, Early September being described as having a “plot” at all. Early in the film, he whimsically includes a conversation in which Gabriel discusses Adrien’s obscure novels, and the question arises of how difficult it is to engage a work of art that refuses to allow the audience an easy way in, via the conventions of story. There’s a little bit of an apology in there from Assayas—not for being difficult, but for giving us something very close to a story. But this lovely movie need not apologize on that score: it puts just as much emphasis on the great matters of love and death as it does the frequent ordering of coffee and sandwiches. C’est la vie, after all.